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Directions to the general counsel seat (part 2): Four tips at three years to go

The overriding message at the three-year mark is that you need to demonstrate that you are a business leader

In the first installment of this series, we established starting coordinates—experience, capabilities and attributes—needed when you are about five years away from the general counsel chair. At three years away your substantive legal skills must be superb; your financial and business acumen and problem-solving and collaboration skills are developing; and you have some solid relationships in the C-suite.

Now is the time to take more action in a number of areas to prepare yourself for the next level. Some ways to do that include:

  • Creating a personal development plan;

  • Conducting another 360: Asking what you need to do to be seen as a leader and enhance your leadership skills and executive presence and;

  • Finding a champion within the company, an adviser who is invested in you.

For more thoughts on where to focus, I spoke with Victoria Reese who heads Heidrick & Struggles’ global Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs Practice, and Julie Preng, leader of Korn/Ferry's Legal & Compliance Specialty Practice. Both described specific skills and attributes, organized into four areas sought by GCs searching for a successor.

Business vs. legal adviser: Be a true partner to the business. According to Preng, while lawyers say they partner with the business, this often translates to simply offering options. You have to do more. She suggests participating with business leaders in strategy sessions to understand their goals and develop a plan for your team to help them achieve those goals. Reese notes that you should be proactive. Think of yourself as a reconnaissance officer, considering what lies ahead in the areas of regulatory, reputational and legal risk. If the industry you are in is undergoing scrutiny in some areas, anticipate what might affect your company and address it appropriately.

Also, hone your business judgment skills and be willing to exercise them. At a recent event, the chief financial officer of a Fortune 500 business unit said he asks lawyers two questions. First, “what is your legal assessment?” Second, “what do you think I should do?” At three years away from a GC seat, you have to be willing to answer the second question. Reese suggests offering choices and your recommendation. Be willing to put yourself on the line.

Financial acumen: By now you should be financially literate and able talk intelligently about disclosures and forecasts. You should be learning how to translate your business units’ major projects into impact on earnings per share. If not, now is the time to learn. Preng suggests sitting in with members of the finance organization when evaluating business deals and developing a relationship with someone in finance willing to commit to teach you key financial metrics.

Leadership skills: Reese notes that, by three years away from the GC role, you should be showing that you have the management skills to lead a large group. She suggests seeking out projects that will demonstrate and enhance both your cross-functional and cross-regional influence skills. Preng notes that showing courage is important, like being willing to advocate for a position, or standing your ground when in the hot seat. Are you comfortable doing so? If not, this may be the time to reconsider whether you want to move to the next level.

Board involvement: Now is also the time to seek exposure to the board. For example, you might become an expert in corporate governance or succession planning, enterprise risk management, or be on the disaster team that informs the board of issues. Request to take on special initiatives, or present to a relevant board committee.

The overriding message at the three-year mark is that you need to demonstrate that you are a business leader. The next article in the series will address the final steps a year away from the chair.

Stewart Hirsch

Stewart Hirsch, Esq. Managing Director of Strategic Relationships LLC, is an executive and business relationship coach for general counsels, lawyers and other professionals. Formerly, Stewart was...

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